7 MIN READ
The Silver Moon Rises as the Sun Sets Over Other Drive-In Theaters
The dancing ray from the projector casts a glow over the crowd of cars — which includes a 1952 Chevrolet Deluxe hardtop, a Studebaker and a 1959 Edsel Pacer — before splashing the 1978 musical “Grease” on the 50-foot-tall screen at the drive-in theater.
It’s 2018, and folks from all over Florida are about to enjoy one of the last remaining affordable family fun nights at a community landmark just outside a mobile-home park in Lakeland, three miles from an Amazon warehouse.
Silver Moon Drive-In Movie Theatre, where a family of four can grab a pizza and a double feature of first-run flicks for less than $25, is celebrating 70 years in business.
Its new owner, Chip Sawyer, 25, hopes to carry on his grandfather Harold Spears’ legacy even as land in Florida becomes more valuable.
“Most sane people, if just looking at it with their financial glasses on, would probably just sell the land to a developer,” says Sawyer, who took over the theater and Joy-Lan Drive-In in Dade City, Florida, after his grandfather died in 2017. “But I’m not going to do that.”
Sawyer is one of dozens of drive-in owners in the U.S. offering affordable movies even as conventional theater prices get steeper. You might even have one right in your backyard.
Affordable Family Nights
At the Cobb Theatres Lakeside 18 & IMAX, about 10 minutes from the Silver Moon, a night out for a family of four can get pretty pricy.
With adult movie tickets starting at $11.50 and kids’ passes at $8.03, just getting in to see the movie costs more than double what it would cost to see a flick at most drive-ins. And don’t even mention the snacks; $20 is considered a special for a popcorn and two sodas.
At Silver Moon, hundreds of local residents and visitors from Winter Park — about 65 miles away — Clermont, Haines City and other Florida cities flock to the two-screen theater every weekend, Sawyer says.
“You get two movies for five bucks a person — where can you get that?” asks Brian Bucia, 45, of Clermont, who moved to Florida 14 years ago and discovered the drive-in five years ago. “You can’t go anywhere else in Florida and get a deal like that. If we lived in Lakeland, we’d be here every weekend.”
In Lakeland, the median household income is just under $41,000, which is about 74% of the median income in the U.S. More than 68% — or 125 — of the 183 American counties with a drive-in have household income below the U.S. median, according to a Penny Hoarder analysis of the latest available U.S. Census data.
Counties with these theaters have roughly 20% of their populations living below the poverty line, and 135 of the 183 counties have a greater poverty rate than the U.S. as a whole.
Clearly, these venues are important to communities in need of affordable things to do.
Bucia, sporting a Silver Moon T-shirt, recalls his family piling eight people into their station wagon when he was a boy and heading to the drive-in near Atlantic City, where he grew up. It’s more than just the bargain. It’s the nostalgia.
Ginny Dabrowski wears her mother’s original poodle skirt to the 70th anniversary event. The 50-year-old Polk County resident says she is enjoying one of her last nights out before heading to Maryland for cancer treatment.
But young people also revel in the experience, judging by at least a dozen teenagers who have shown up for the celebration. Among them is Ashlynn Skeen, 17.
She saw her first movie at Silver Moon when she was 2 years old.
The U.S. has lost a quarter of its drive-in theaters over the past decade.
As of March 2016, 206 drive-ins were left, according to the latest available data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Numbers from the United Drive-in Theatre Owners Association show that 15% have disappeared since 2007. The group said there were 324 venues across the U.S. in 2016. And according to DriveInMovie.com, the industry has lost 101 drive-ins — but gained 28 — for a net loss of 73 since 2006. It counts 330 current drive-ins, down from about 4,000 in the late 1950s.
While the actual number of drive-in theaters varies depending on whom you ask and the methods of counting used, the reality is that these slices of pure Americana have struggled to adjust to the modern motion-picture landscape.
Movie distributors have stopped providing 35 mm film and send only digital copies to theaters, forcing drive-ins to adapt or die in the 2010s. It cost the Silver Moon more than $100,000 to digitize its operation about six years ago, Sawyer said.
And land, especially land in Florida, isn’t cheap.
Over the past year alone, the market value for the Silver Moon jumped by $45,600, which added an additional $683 to the property’s 2017 tax bill, according to the Polk County Property Appraiser’s Office.
Recently, Sawyer agonized over the decision to raise children's ticket prices to $2, citing an increase in the minimum wage and a jump in food prices. He said he hasn’t heard any negative feedback.
To raise more revenue, the Silver Moon hosts a swap shop, which costs vendors $5 on Saturday and $15 on Sunday. There, you can find everything from fresh produce to antiques and clothes.
“Obviously we operate at night, so with the acreage of land we had to do something with that during the day,” Sawyer said.
While community support and brand recognition bode well for Silver Moon in the long run, distributors flirting with direct-to-video strategies and deals like MoviePass make Sawyer nervous.
Still, DriveInMovie.com owner Nick Hensgen is tracking six drive-ins slated to open this year — the first time more have opened than closed in decades, he said.
A New Generation
After I drive past the Silver Moon marquee and settle into a line of more than 20 cars waiting to park for the 70th anniversary celebration, an out-of-breath, bearded millennial runs up to my window. He hands me a coozie and a pen emblazoned with the Silver Moon logo and barely gets out, “Enjoy!” before sprinting off to the next vehicle.
I find out 15 minutes later it was Chip Sawyer.
“I just go wherever I’m needed, really, keeping an eye on the books, managers and maintenance, trying to keep it running as smoothly as possible,” he says, noting that he works 10 to 25 hours a week on the property. “But I’m also in the trenches doing what’s necessary.”
That sounds very similar to how Sawyer, articles in the Ledger and patrons at the 70th anniversary celebration describe Harold Spears, Sawyer’s grandfather. He worked on-site until three months before he died at 87 from multiple myeloma, even as the cancer in his bones made standing difficult.
“He was out here as long as he possibly could be,” Sawyer says.
When he was 15, Sawyer started working the box office at Silver Moon. That meant losing his weekends to shoveling popcorn until after 1 a.m. He started working at Publix in 2012 — he currently is in the corporate finance department — but still found time to work at the drive-in, too.
Sawyer has a master’s degree in business, but he has always been infatuated with history. (His favorite movie is “Casablanca.”)
“Drive-ins had a big part in American history, so having the opportunity to keep that going is very rewarding,” he said.
It’s clear the hard work of Sawyer and his managers keeps the Silver Moon profitable, although he prefers not to share financial figures.
In Lakeland, the theater is its own kind of community center, nearly a dozen natives say at the anniversary event.
“I think the Silver Moon is everything to Lakeland,” says John Kunkel, 24, Sawyer’s best friend, who has known the budding business owner since he was in kindergarten.
As for the future, Sawyer doesn’t have many big changes slated for the property — yet.
The $100,000 cost of a new, third screen and the difficulty of the county permit approval process, along with being landlocked between a railroad and a highway, create limited expansion options for Silver Moon. But the theater is looking into adding more concession options, and it does have a mobile screen it’s taken to events in downtown Lakeland
“As long as people keep coming out, we’ll be here,” Sawyer says.
Alex Mahadevan is a data journalist at The Penny Hoarder. His favorite movie is “Kicking and Screaming.” No, not the Will Ferrell one.